Fairfax County Park Authority recognized as best in the nation for the fourth time

The National Gold Medal for Excellence recognizes agencies that demonstrate overall merit in community parks and recreation across a three-year period.

natural train in fairfax county
Sugarland Run Stream Valley Trail hike in Herndon. (© Kristina / stock.adobe.com)

Northern Virginia is home to a surplus of natural grounds, ranging from parks to hiking trails, as well as a surrounding community that values it all. And while the land, recreation centers and available activities are well-kept and planned for, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes action required to ensure the operation runs smoothly. 

This September, the park authority of the largest county in the region, Fairfax County, was recognized for its outstanding efforts with the National Gold Medal Award by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association. This is the fourth year since the park authority’s inception in the 1950s that it has received this title. 

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The prestigious award is given to a community in the nation that demonstrates excellence in long-range planning, resource management and innovative approaches to delivering the best park and recreation services possible. To receive the award, agencies must submit a 12- to 15-page application, as well as a complementary video if admitted to the final round against three other groups. The application is then evaluated by a panel of five park and recreation professionals. 

Due to the size of the county, the Fairfax County Park Authority won in the class one category for populations greater than 400,000. This year, the local park authority was up against agencies in Chicago, Illinois, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Mesa, Arizona. 

“What makes Fairfax county unique is the fact that we have a park system where 90% of residents live within a half-mile of a park,” says Sara Baldwin, deputy director of the park authority. “We have nine recreation centers, several golf courses, nature centers, so it’s the entire system that we have that makes us unique compared to our competitors.”

In addition, most agencies across the country are tax-supported, according to Baldwin, but Fairfax County’s revenue stems from fees and a steady income, reflective of a business. 

Over the course of the past three years, Fairfax County has implemented a number of programs and changes in its system to better serve the community, focusing on topics like overall health and wellness, preservation of historic grounds and recognition of local volunteers.  

Because the park authority has won the National Gold Medal for Excellence four times—in 1983, the 1990s and 2010—the team is restricted to applying five years after the previous win. Yet that doesn’t stop them from maintaining prestige. 

“The thing that’s gratifying to us is … there are a lot of places that have won this one time and then that’s it,” says Nick Duray, marketing manager for Fairfax County Park Authority. “The Park Authority, because we have such widespread community support, has really been able to demonstrate continual excellence since the 1980s and it’s so gratifying to us and the policymakers in the county.”

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